Edgar Wright, Sparks on Their Brilliant Sundance Doc ‘Sparks Brothers’
There is no such thing as a casual Sparks fan — there are only degrees of obsessiveness. Let’s say you’re someone who might have a lifelong attachment to the album that first turned you on to Ron and Russell Mael’s decades-old musical project, whether it was the post-glam hangover of 1974’s Kimono My House, or the influential, Giorgio Moroder-produced death disco of 1979’s No. 1 in Heaven, or the KROQ-friendly modern rock of 1983’s In Outer Space. On a scale of one to 10, you’re a four.
Maybe someone’s followed Sparks through down some interesting yet challenging detours (big up 1977’s confusion-inducing Introducing Sparks), stuck by as the band changed up its sound every other album, and still bought tickets to see them play in the 21st century. That’s a six. Basing your entire fashion sense on Ron’s creepy, smiling, jitterbugging-1950s-uncle-gone-to-seed period? A seven-point-five. Tattooing the cover of 1984’s Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat on your back? A solid eight.
And then there’s spending three years of your life making a comprehensive documentary about the prolific, intensely private band, one that covers every single era, the early successes and mid-period failures, the numerous lineups, the career-defining hits and career-derailing experiments and out-of-left-field comebacks. All of it. The whole Sparks shebang. By these 1-to-10 standards of Sparks obsessiveness, Edgar Wright falls somewhere around a 25.
A longtime evangelist for the duo, the Shaun of the Dead filmmaker/superfan’s portrait The Sparks Brothers is the first in-depth look at a 50-year musical career that encompasses ’70s arena rock, punk, power pop, electro-pop, New Wave, ’90s alt-rock, new millennium rave music, the postpunk-revival scene (see: F.F.S., their one-off supergroup collaboration with Franz Ferdinand) and several side trips into genuinely uncharted territory. It’s also the story of two Southern California brothers who channeled their love of early rock & roll and movies — and an extremely eccentric, lodge-tongue-A-in-cheek-B sense of humor — into a disciplined, duo-fronted endeavor.
Filled with interviews, archival footage and an abundance of puckishness, Wright’s doc is both a straightforward look at a skewed band and the equivalent of a Sparks album: silly yet sincere, ironic yet affectionate, familiar in its format yet somehow teetering on the fringe of something completely different. It may be the only music doc to feature a a band listing off 10 blatant lies about themselves before pulling off masks to reveal … well, never mind.
Right before The Sparks Brothers premiere at this year’s all-virtual Sundance, we talked via Zoom to Wright, Ron Mael and Russell Mael about the process of looking back at a group that’s always been determined, sometimes to its own detriment, to keep looking forward. This conversation has been edited for clarity, length, and to emphasize how much these three gentleman laugh when in each others’ company.
Like a lot of British fans, you first discovered Sparks on Top of the Pops, Edgar?
Edgar Wright: At age five, yes. I have a vivid memory of seeing them on that show in 1979, though I don’t remember if they did “Beat the Clock” or “The Number One Song in Heaven” … maybe it was both. My parents used to get these hits-of-the-day albums that were sort of the predecessors to the Now That’s What I Call Music series. One had “Beat the Clock” on it, and another had “When I’m With You” on it — I’d listen to those songs all the time.
What’s funny is, something like “Beat the Clock” … it’s really catchy and has a chorus that is easy to sing along with if you’re a five-year-old. And yet I remember listening to it as a kid, and thinking, “What’s this song about?” It was like hearing the old Monty Python sketches, where you maybe didn’t understand all of the references but you wanted to. Sparks was a band that made me want to be smarter and more knowledgeable. They made me want to decode things more.
So your relationship with their music starts with the Giorgio Moroder period, more or less?
EW: Something I noticed in telling the history of the band with this, it’s like you could almost chart when certain people got into them by what era of Sparks they liked. Or what country they’re from — I was going back and forth between London and Los Angeles a lot, and you’d know that someone from London probably knew them for “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” single or the Moroder stuff, and Americans of a certain age would go, oh, I love Angst in My Pants! So yeah, that was my first Sparks, you could say.
But later, when I was a teenager and was listening to a lot of David Bowie, Roxy Music, and T. Rex, I saw a Sparks song show up on a glam-rock compilation. “Wait, is this the same band? I mean, it clearly has the same singer and it’s fairly keyboard-centric, but…”. It was baffling to me, because in the era before the Internet, I was trying to piece everything together on the band without much to guide me. And then in the 1990s, they had a hit with “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way,’?,” that music video was on all the time and I’m thinking, “Is that the same band I saw 15 years ago? How does Russell look younger? What’s going on?!” [Laughs] It wasn’t until this millennium, really, that I became a hardcore fan and properly obsessive over them, around the time of [2002’s] Lil’ Beethoven album.
At what point did the idea of doing a documentary on them come into the picture?
EW: I was writing Baby Driver in Los Angeles and working in this office right next to the Formosa. I’d been playing a lot of Sparks albums for friends, and one day I thought: I wonder if Sparks is on Twitter? So I went on to their Twitter account and was stunned to see, “Sparks Follows You.”
That’s a great name for a Sparks album, actually.
Ron Mael: It is! [Laughs]
EW: Before I got to know them, I didn’t believe that Ron and Russell lived on planet earth — I assumed they were the J.D. Salingers of rock. To hear that not only did they live in Los Angeles and were in the same timezone as me, but that they followed me on Twitter? So I messaged them and say, “Hey, is this really Sparks, I’m a big fan…” I assumed it was some assistant or something that managed the account. And Russell messaged me back like five minutes later and said, “Yeah, it’s us, we’re really big fans of your movies!” Within 24 hours, I’m sitting there, having breakfast with Ron and Russell in Beverly Hills.
A few years later, during the Hippopotamus tour, I went to one of their shows with [The Lego Movie codirector] Phil Lord, who’s also a big Sparks fans. We’re standing between Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and Toni Basil. I’m looking down from the balcony at this crowd who range from age 16 to 60, and I turn to Phil and go, “The only thing stopping this band from being as big as they should be is some kind of overview.” You know, if there was some kind of documentary that basically told you the whole story, it’s a way to bring all of these fandoms together. At which point Phil Lord said, “You should make that movie!” And I replied, “I will.” [Laughs]
Had you been approached about doing a documentary before, Ron and Russell?
Russell Mael: We’d been approached various times during our career about a documentary, but we always hesitated to say yes, because what we do musically speaks a lot better to what we’re trying to do than verbalizing it. Besides, if it wasn’t the right person or the right sensibility, it wouldn’t be something satisfactory. There wouldd be no reason to do it.
But when Edgar mentioned the possibility of doing one with him, we quickly said yes. We’re fans of his work, we love his films, and in its way, the sensibility you see in his films is parallel to the sensibility in Sparks’ music. You could tell that the guy who made this films go justice to the band’s story. We could never see how those folks could make it work. With Edgar, we couldn’t see how it could not work. It was, ok — this is the time and this is the guy.
EW: It was easier to make the movie than to keep explaining why Sparks was such a great band. Someone would go, “What Sparks album should I start with?” And it’s like, how do I begin to answer that question? What version of Sparks do you want? [Laughs]
Ron: Every Sparks album is a new album when it’s the first one you’re hearing.
There’s a Sparks for all seasons.
Ron: Edgar also expressed to us that he wanted to treat all of the musical periods with a degree of equality — and where what we’re doing now would be seen as just as significance as what we did 40 years ago. Whether there’s a certain measure of self-delusion in thinking that, I don’t know [laughs]. But that was important to us. When Russell and I are working, we do just sort of assume that.
And he got it. Edgar wanted to shoot modern-day concerts in Tokyo and Mexico to show that a young audience’s reaction now is actually surprisingly similar to the reaction of our audience in 1974. I mean, it’s funny how 50 years just kind of flattens when you’re playing that music up there. It all just sort of becomes one thing.
Edgar: I wanted to be comprehensive. Especially because the failures are just as interesting as the successes. I think Ron and Russell were surprised they had advocates for some of the albums even they don’t think quite worked out.
It also feels like Edgar would get that you’re a group who uses humor but isn’t a novelty band — there’s a lot of musicianship and chops being displayed in Sparks. Same with the songwriting. And yet, so many people fixate on the humor …
Ron: “Oh, they’re the funny band!” Yeah, we’ve heard that before. And I mean, we do feel that the technical side of things should be invisible to someone listening. But we feel that there’s this nice, bittersweet layer to the lyrics, and if you are using humor — especially in terms of the visual sense of your band — you are sort of dismissed as lightweight, or not really a band to be reckoned with. It’s not like we have a choice in the matter — it’s just what we do.
Edgar: You guys are very serious about being funny.
Ron: But one of the things I’m so pleased with in terms of the documentary is that the humor is put into a context. It’s seen in the correct way.
Russell: Edgar let the lyrics be a part of the band’s story as well. I’d file those under “chops”; I think Ron’s lyrics are really special. It was great to hear so many observations from the cast of characters that he got to weigh in on the writing itself. There’s that thing that [Franz Ferdinand frontman] Alex Kapranos says about how Ron is ripping open up his chest and screaming “Listen to me!” in our songwriting … I’m paraphrasing, but you hear these things and you think, ah, they understand. It’s touching. Or Mike Myers weighing in on the merit of the lyrics of “The Girl From Germany” … when Edgar told me he was interviewing him, I was like, “Really? Mike Myers is a fan?” It’s moving.
Edgar: I wanted to get people who were noted Sparks fans. And then I’d ask people who I sort of assumed were Sparks fans, and 90-percent of the time, I was right. “Hey, Mike Myers, I bet you’re a Sparks fan, right? Great, what are you doing on Tuesday?” [Laughs] I wanted to make a documentary hat clearly felt like it was a film set in the Sparks universe. You know, you’re approaching the subject with sincerity and appreciation, but also poking at the format a lot. Like a Sparks song, basically.
I think the thing that makes the band brilliant and may have held them back — and it feels weird saying this with you guys sitting there — is that there is this idea of being “in the scene,” but also sort of standing on the edge of the dance floor and commenting on the scene at the same time. It might seem like they’re keeping you at arm’s length, but that actually makes things more interesting. It’s why so many Sparks fans who loved them when they were 12 are still talking about them now, as opposed to a lot of other bands you liked when you young. If anything, some of those older songs sound better when you perform them now.
Ron: It’s touched on in the film, but: We did a series of concerts in 2008, I believe, where we performed all of our albums chronologically and completely from start to finish. It was something, uh…what’s the word I’m looking for? Stupid. [Laughs] It was a ridiculous thing to do, but it did allow us to revisit the older stuff and add to it. Or revisit things from albums that even we semi-dismissed and realize, yeah, it is all part of the same… I hate to say “craft,” because that makes it sound so mechanical. But you could see how those songs sounded different yet go together. It was an educational experience for us. [Pause] One which we will never, ever repeat. [Laughs].
Do you think you could have done this documentary if you hadn’t had that experience, though? Yes, you were waiting for the right person to do this, but when you’re performing something like 21 albums in 21 nights, that has to involve looking back on a huge body of work — and you’d sort of need that to participate in a portrait on your whole career, right?
Russell: Yeah, I think you’re right. We are really proud of having done those shows and that experiment, and maybe that did kind of get us over a certain hump of not liking to look backward. We’re not a band who does that. I think it’s one of our strengths that we can put on blinders when it comes to our history and just focus on what’s next, and what do we have to do to get the message out there that’s vital for the next period.
When the idea of doing all of our albums in their entirety came up, we went for it because it just seemed so audacious. We thought, no other band would ever do this — and for that alone, we probably should do this. And like Ron said, it was a way for us to have some kind of perspective on our career, and to be able to see that those albums that had slipped through the cracks — and that we maybe thought were bad because that had slipped through the cracks — weren’t so bad when you put them in a live setting. We felt better a lot better about them.
So yeah…even if we weren’t consciously thinking that way, maybe that did open us up to be able then do what Edgar needed us to do for the film. We still had trepidations going in, of course — there is so little known about Sparks, and that was something I considered a positive. We wanted to keep that mystery surrounding the band. We didn’t want people to see the film and go, “So that’s what it is. Eh.” [Laughs] Thankfully, Edgar wanted to keep the aura around us intact.
EW: This is where the Sparks facts come in at the end.
None of which are true.
Ron: Some of which might be true. You just don’t know which one it is. [Laughs]
You found a lot of rare footage of the band from virtually every era.
EW: We found one clip of Sparks on ‘70s TV that neither Ron nor Russell remember doing. It was great to introduce them to their performance. [Laughs] And there was a lot of fan footage we got — there were folks who’d taken Super 8 footage of the “Big Beat” tour. I mean now, every fucker’s got an iPhone, but back then, you had to sneak a movie camera in to a concert. Not only that, they kept it and still have it. Or, like, the son of a German TV producer got ahold of us and said, “Hey, my dad took 35mm footage of Sparks in 1974 and I have it in my attic, would you like it?”
We put the word out on Twitter to fans and there was such an outpouring of stuff. Including a few who ended up being interviewees — my favorite part of the movie is the Zapruder-style breakdown of the band getting mobbed in 1974, in which we have both the footage and an interview with the then-14-year-old stage invader who bear-hugged Ron! She literally wrote us an email with that whole story about being obsessed with the band and I told my producer, “Can we get her to say this on camera, this is great!”
It become a naturally evolving oral history where, as a Sparks fan and a director, there wasn’t anybody I didn’t want to talk about the band. You have artists who watched that original Top of the Pops performance they did and eventually drew from Sparks when they formed their own band, and then you have the bands that ripped those bands up and copied all these Ron and Russell things without even know it. I think Beck says it in the movie, that Sparks are like the bees of music. They’re always cross-pollinating everywhere.